Can We Be Discerning Without Being Judgmental?

Good judgment is a function of wisdom, and exercising it—in the form of discernment—is a Christian duty. The Psalmist prays for discernment (Psalm 19:12), Proverbs exalts it (Prov. 14:8), and Paul prays that believers will abound in it (Phil. 1:9).

Tim Challies’ definition of discernment is as good as any I’ve seen (I have not yet read the book):

Discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.

But sometimes when we think we’re exercising discernment, we’re really just being judgmental. We’ve taken a noble and nurturing love for truth and turned it into something ugly, harmful, and infectious. Those who are most zealous for truth and discernment may well be the quickest to stumble into judgmentalism.

So how do we tell the difference? How do we actively practice discernment (Heb. 5:14) without becoming one of those frowning, finger-pointing, spirit-crushing, accusers of the brethren?

Five Features of Judgmentalism

I believe five distinguishing features of judgmentalism can help us identify and avoid it.

1. Eagerness

Part of what Jesus is doing in Matthew 7:1-2 is encouraging a reluctance to pass judgment on others. He does not say never judge, and a few verses later, without using the word “judge,” He encourages His hearers to look at the “fruit” in people’s lives and decide what sort of “tree” they are (Matt. 7:18-20).

Still, His warning that judging tends to result in being judged—and by the same standard (Matt. 7:2)—is at the very least, intended to created some hesitation, caution, and reflection. We are not supposed to be eager to find fault with people or quick to believe we’re qualified to declare the fault we think we’ve found (Matt. 7:4-5).

When I’m in “I’m right and you’re wrong” mode, or it’s cousin, “We’re right and They’re wrong” mode, I really need to pause and ask myself: Am I enjoying this a bit too much?

It isn’t a coincidence that love “keeps no accounts of evil” (1 Cor. 13:5) or that Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10) and seems to take great pleasure in accusing them “day and night before our God.”

An eagerness to find fault and pronounce judgment is no part of discernment.

2. Harshness

Jesus reserved His harshest words for special occasions and targeted a special few (Matt. 25, for example). His demeanor toward garden variety sinners, though, was notably different:

  • Compassion (Mark 6:34)
  • Grief (Luke 13:34)
  • Connection (Mark 2:16-17, Luke 19:5)
  • Gentleness (John 5:14, Luke 7:47-48)

Jesus was not in the business of crushing bruised reeds and quenching smoldering wicks (Matt. 12:20). Rather, He measured out the severity of His judgment and His words sparingly, carefully avoiding rhetorical excessive force.

Paul identifies this quality of gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23, and His instructions to Timothy are potent on this point as well:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (ESV, 2 Tim. 2:24-26)

Discernment is a thoughtful and measured activity. If we’ve slipped into a harsh tone, there’s a strong possibility that we’re just being judgmental.

3. Expansiveness

Judgmentalism is characterized not only by eagerness and harshness, but also by exceeding our mandate, so to speak—trying to be the referee from the back row of the stands.

When I’m watching one of my son’s softball games, I’m aware that softball is a relatively uncomplicated game. There’s a chance I might see something the referee has missed. It might even be something important—but that doesn’t make it my call.

In Romans 14, the apostle Paul seems to be addressing this tendency to overextend our judgment:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:4)

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God (Rom. 14:10)

When I’m going about the business of discernment, question I need to ask myself some questions: Is this really in my jurisdiction? Do I have any business forming an opinion on this, and even if so, do I have any business voicing it?

It’s hard to be sure what situation David had in mind in Psalm 113, but the verse often comes to my mind in the context of discernment and judgmentalism:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. (Psalm 131:1)

What’s beyond doubt is that some matters are not our business (Prov. 26:17), and part of avoiding judgmentalism is being wary of overstepping our authority.

4. Superficiality

Judgmentalism thrives on, among other things, human laziness. It’s easier to look at “the outward appearance” (1 Sam. 16:7), then classify and characterize (often emphatically), than it is to consider that the situation may be more than it seems. But both charity and wisdom call us to go beyond merely seeing. We must try to perceive.

  • The way that seems right often isn’t (Prov. 14:12).
  • We should not “regard … according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).
  • We should try to avoiding hastily answering matters we haven’t adequately investigated (Prov.18:13).
  • What seems true after the testimony of one, often seems false after hearing more (Prov. 18:17).

It’s true that Paul felt entitled to judge an issue in the Corinthian church without even being there (1 Cor. 5:3), but the context of his statement shows that he had gone to the trouble to gather good information from sources connected both to himself and the congregation (1 Cor. 5:1, 1:11). In any case, Paul either had all the facts he needed to judge the situation or possessed insight as part of his apostolic gifts.

When Jesus told us to evaluate people by their “fruit” (Matt. 7:18-20), He wasn’t calling us to judge only by the most obvious, conspicuous appearances.

5. Pride

One of the most beautiful passages in the NT is found in 1 Corinthians 6:11, particularly the phrase “such were some of you.” We’ve all either come out of, or temporarily picked up, something on that last, or one of the others in the NT. That doesn’t nullify the Matthew 7 call to evaluate metaphorical trees by looking at their fruit. It doesn’t release us from the duty to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) or train our spiritual senses (Heb. 5).

What it does do is compel us to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3). It drives us to take heed lest we, too, fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12). It demands that when we find fault, we do so with compassion, lowliness of mind, and a desire to construct rather than destruct.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, one was judgmental and the other was discerning, choosing to tell himself the truth about himself before any thought of declaring the truth about others to others. We all know which of the two we’d rather hang out with.

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There are 6 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

I like your five criteria. They make sense. When I read the article, my thoughts immediately wandered to the so-called "discernment ministries." They're usually peopled by well-meaning but (seemingly) evil people, ever ready to write someone off and assume the worst. Here is a representative, shameful example from a modern-day fundamentalist institution (in the broad, historic sense of the word), Pulpit & Pen, in their recent article entitled, "Would Spurgeon Attend the G3 Conference?"

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I wasn't actually thinking of "discernment ministries," though there could certainly be application. Where I see the problem most is in myself and others on a more personal/individual level. .... whether I've been judgmental toward Donald Trump, for example. I don't think I have, but I did feel that it was important to work through that.

Also want to challenge the attitude that tends to see unbelievers as sinners and Them first rather than as fellow humans first (and then as sinners, like us). So the dehumanizing aspect was and is on my mind, though I haven't yet figured out how to write about the dehumanizing part in any organized way.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

When you mention the fact that we enjoy our 'righteous anger' and indignation so much, I can't help it--I want to science everything. 

The brain is set up in such a way that we tend to feel before we think. The amygdala engages before the prefrontal cortex, and when we perceive a 'threat', our bodies are flooded with catecholamines, which give us an adrenaline rush and burst of energy that can last for hours. Basically, it feels great to be angry.

I think that is why the Bible constantly reminds us to seek wisdom and exercise our senses to discern good and evil, because we can learn cognitive control over our emotional reactions. 

TimNT's picture

Thank you for the link to the article re: "Would Sprugeon Attend the G3 Conference?".  I was glad to see someone confront the social gospel movement and the pressure to submit to it because of some well know religious leaders espouse that view.  I realize your opinion was that it was a shameful article however I had the opposite response to it.  Thanks again and God bless you!

TylerR's picture

Editor

No problem! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I thought that particular P&P post had some valid points as well. The unhealthy and unbiblical situation that develops tends to follow two patterns:

  • An interest in finding error that eventually becomes a constant focus on fault-finding
  • An interest in finding error that loses a proper sense of proportion (every real or perceived inconsistency or mistake is seen and handled as a big deal.)

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